Preparatory School Life
A literary symbol is something, often an object, that stands for a significant concept or series of ideas. Sometimes it is emblematic of the values of the characters. Some of the most important symbols in The Catcher in the Rye are outlined in the following sections.
Pencey Prep and Elkton Hills are examples of institutions that serve as symbols. For Holden, the schools represent the phony, cruel world of those who run them. Even the advertisements for Pencey Prep are misleading. They feature "some hot shot guy on a horse" performing equestrian feats. Holden says he has never even seen a horse at Pencey. The school's motto is equally repulsive to Holden: "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men." Holden can think of perhaps two boys who fit that description, and they probably came to Pencey that way. For Holden, a more typical example of the Pencey preppie is his roommate, Ward Stradlater, a boorish womanizer who gets by on superficial good looks and fake charm. Holden is being expelled for poor academic performance, but Stradlater wants to cheat by having Holden do his English theme for him since Holden does write well.
Even more serious is the cruelty that Holden has seen at prep schools. As he tells Phoebe, "You never saw so many mean guys in your life." Holden dislikes the exclusivity and the prejudice against those who are neither attractive nor hip. He is ashamed of himself for going along with the crowd and joining a secret fraternity. Although James Castle's brutally forced suicide took place at Elkton Hills, we get the idea that it could have happened at Pencey Prep just as easily. For Holden, the two schools are emblematic of a corrupt system designed by privileged adults and catering to boys who want to join their ranks. Part of Holden's dilemma is that he struggles so hard against a system into which he was born.
Allie's Baseball Glove
Allie's left-handed baseball glove is a physically smaller but significant symbol in the novel. It represents Holden's love for his deceased brother as well as Allie's authentic uniqueness. Allie covered the glove with poems written in green ink so that he would have something to read when things got boring in the baseball field. This mitt is not a catcher's mitt; it is a fielder's glove. Holden has shown it to only one person outside the family: Jane Gallagher. When he writes a descriptive theme about the glove for Stradlater to turn in for his English assignment, of course the insensitive roommate does not understand.
Holden's Red Hunting Cap
Holden's red hunting cap is another small artifact of symbolic meaning. He bought it for one dollar in New York on the Saturday morning when he lost the fencing equipment. The cap is practical at times but is foolish-looking, with its extra-long bill and earflaps. It represents Holden's delightful attraction to unusual qualities, in objects as well as people, that others might miss. He realizes that the hat is unfashionable and occasionally is careful about who sees it, but he loves it anyway. He likes to wear it with the bill pointing to the back, as a baseball catcher might. For Holden, it is a reading cap as much as a protection against the cold. Because this is a hunting cap, we might speculate on what it is that Holden is hunting.